Sunday, September 04, 2005

Kenneth Snelson

Along with mentioning nothing, or until late yesterday in the case of Artnet, no one has said much of the piece of art destroyed. Art or Idiocy? with its brilliant powers of internet deduction to the rescue!

This is an image of the Snelson sculpture in question:

Kenneth Snelson • Virlane Tower • 1981

The “discontinuous tension” nature of Snelson’s work may explain why it collapsed. Being a tall tower held together by such physics courts disaster when gail force winds roll in.

The work of Kenneth Snelson is really quite fascinating. On we learn about Kenneth Snelson’s work and relationship to R. Buckminster Fuller. Snelson’s work is primarily based on the principles of tensegrity. “His large scale constructs show how compression members can provide rigidity while remaining separate, not touching one another, held in stasis only by means of tensed wires.”

Snelson met Fuller at the Black Mountain College in 1948. Inspired by Fuller, he made his own experiments and discoveries of “discontinuous compression.” Returning to Black Mountain College he excitedly showed Fuller, only to pretty much have his innovations stolen. This appears the general case of those who shared ideas with R. Buckminster Fuller.

In addition to studying at Black Mountain, Snelson studied at the Chicago Institute of Design, and with Fernand Leger in Paris.

Kenneth Snelson's artist's statement is “My art is concerned with nature in its primary aspect, the patterns of physical forces in three dimensional space.” This calls to mind the late Al Held.


Another view of the illfated Snelson. Both images found on forums at

Unlike contemporary artists who uselessly aestheticize science, such Matthew Ritchie, Keith Tyson, Mark Dion or Damien Hirst, Snelson has made contributions to both the arts AND the sciences. In addition to the engineering he uses in creating his sculptures, he has built up quite an impressive resume of contributions, such as his work with the atom:
    "A Design for the Atom," Industrial Design, Feb., 1963
    Model for Atomic Forms, October, 1966, U.S. Patent #3,276,148
    Model for Atomic Forms, July, 1978, U.S. Pat.#4,099,339
    "Toward a Computer Generated Atom", pp 835-844, Conference Proceedings, National Computer Graphics Conference, '91

As an artist, he has shown with Marlborough and Laurence Miller in NYC, and Yoh Art Gallery in Osaka Japan. Some of the Public collections his work is in are:
    Albright-Knox Art Gallery
    The Art Institute of Chicago
    Australian National Gallery
    Cleveland Museum of Art
    Dallas Museum of Fine Arts
    Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
    Walker Art Center
    The Met, MoMA, The Whitney
    As well as in Australia, Germany and Japan

The artist’s website is a wealth of information on his artistic and scientific endeavors.

1 comment:

FloatingBones said...

Discontinuous compression (not "discontinuous tension") is the principle behind Snelson's sculptures.
The principle has other names: tensional integrity, tensegrity, floating compression.

Floating compression is a fundamental way of creating structure; it is indeed based on sound physical principles.

A bicycle wheel is an example of a floating compression structure: the spokes are at tension; the hub and rim have a "floating" relationship with each other. Bicycle wheels are very light and efficient at dealing with stresses.

The fact that a particular bicycle wheel fails is not a condemnation of the general design of those structures. A wheel's failure may be caused by a material problem or by stresses on the wheel that it was never designed to accommodate.

In a similar fashion, the collapse of the Virlane Tower is most likely unrelated to its design. I contacted the NOMA officials; they speculate that a cable near the base of the structure was struck by an object during the hurricane.

In any case, the Virlane Tower has been refurbished and was re-installed at the NOMA last fall. The refurbishment was completed by the Pinwheel Corporation of Seattle, WA; a company that has worked with Snelson on several of his recent sculptures.